Women’s Voices and the Public Space:Tradition and Texts that must not disappear

I am increasingly convinced that unless women know the texts of our own tradition, we will be at the mercy of the interpretations of those who wish to keep women’s voices from the public sphere. The tension that exists between those who wish to shut women up and the rights and desires of women to speak and be heard has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet the texts upon which our tradition actually stands are unaware of such tension. It is clear that women and men both had a voice that must be heard, there is no cognizance or pattern in bible of women being silenced. Indeed the voices of the matriarchs are powerful drivers of the narrative, their needs are documented, their feelings acknowledged. Indeed one of my favourite overlooked verses in bible is when Abraham is told to listen to the voice of Sarah: “And God said to Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you.” (Genesis 21:12)

I am well aware that in Genesis 3: 17 God punishes Adam, apparently because he listened to his wife’s voice: “And to Adam God said: ‘Because you have hearkened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying: You shall not eat of it; cursed is the ground for you sake; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.” But these two verses do not need to be in opposition. In the story of the eating of the fruit of the tree, the words “because you have listened to the voice of your wife” are apparently superfluous in that Adam also ate of the fruit of the tree. So what is the problem here? Chaim ibn Attar (known as the Or ha-Ḥayyim) a prominent 18th century Moroccan Rabbi suggests that the problem is that Adam listened to his wife but did not engage her in conversation and so did not understand the provenance of the fruit that she was giving him. If we extend this argument to the verse where Abraham is told to listen to Sarah, his listening (presumably a more dynamic and thoughtful listening than that of Adam) leads him to do what God wants. The point is that both voices in active conversation, with active listening to the other, are required, and not the one way control where women are instructed by the voice of men to keep their voices silent. That way lies the fate of Adam, cast out of the garden because he did not actively converse with his wife.

The classical world did not appreciate the voice of women in public space, and it seems to me that Judaism (along with other traditions and cultures) have whole heartedly adopted the mores of the Greek and Roman worlds where it comes to the voices of women. Mary Beard wrote a wonderful treatment of women’s voices in this classical world which you can access here http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women and I recommend that you do so in order to see just how much syncretism has gone on in order to suppress the sound of women’s voices. She speaks not only of the systematised disempowerment of women in the classical world but also of the thinking behind it, writing that “to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”

But in the world of bible the genders were not so defined, though certainly the rabbinic literature is influenced by the view of women as being of lower status that threads through the law and customs from the Roman world. The rabbis might have absorbed this view, but it comes to them from a world view outside the ur-texts of our tradition.

So here is a list, not exhaustive and not definitive, of the voices of women singing and dancing and loudly celebrating in the presence of – indeed alongside – the men.

The songs (and dances) of Women

  1. Miriam dances and sings with timbrels in a victory song Exodus 15: 1-3, 20 – 23

א אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהוָֹה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם: ב עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַֽאֲרֹֽמְמֶֽנְהוּ: ג יְהוָֹ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה יְהוָֹ֖ה שְׁמֽוֹ:

“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted; the horse and his rider God has thrown into the sea. The Eternal is my strength and song, and God is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Eternal is a man of war, The Eternal is God’s name.”

כ וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַֽהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אן ָ כָל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַֽחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת: כא וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָֹה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם:   ס   כב וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּֽצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּֽלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם: כג וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֨יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָֽרָא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה:

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted: the horse and his rider God has thrown into the sea. And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah.”

Many scholars are of the opinion that the whole hymn in Exodus was originally led by Miriam, not just the verse above (v21) that mirrors Moses in verse 1. It was known that women would lead victory songs and dancing (see 1 Samuel 18:6-7 below)

A separate song of Miriam has survived in part in a Qumran text (4Q365 fragment 6a and 6c). The seven lines which expand the song and are preserved here indicate that Miriam was considered in the ancient Jewish text as an appropriate singer of songs, an autonomous figure with her own song of triumph which, while it repeats some of the features of the Mosaic song recorded in Exodus has other material not so recorded.

Certainly Jewish tradition contains a number of statements that refer to the song of Miriam and to the way her voice was heard at the Reed Sea. Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judaeus) (20 BCE- 50 CE) suggests that the men and women sang together. Rashi, citing the Mechilta (ad loc), comments that “Moses sang the song to the men; he sang the song and they responded after him, and Miriam sang the song to the women (and they responded after her, as it is written ‘Sing’ [Shiru]).”

Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) also assumes that the women sang, because they could claim that the redemption from Egypt only took place because of their merit as women had saved Moses as a baby and the midwives Shipra and Puah had defied the Pharoah in order to deliver baby Jewish boys. Indeed he says that they sang separately from the men so that their voices would be heard clearly, as they had had such a share in the miracles. And other commentators suggest that the men and women sang polyphonically, with the men initiating song and the women responding by repeating it, both parts equally important.

The song of Miriam as a response to military victory with dancing and the beating of drums, is part of a strand of women’s singing that can be found as a victorious celebration by women throughout bible (see also Judges 11:4; Jer.31:3; Psalm 68:26; Judith 15:12-13)

  1. Deborah the prophetess sings her song of victory

א וַתָּ֣שַׁר דְּבוֹרָ֔ה וּבָרָ֖ק בֶּן־אֲבִינֹ֑עַם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹֽר: ב בִּפְרֹ֤עַ פְּרָעוֹת֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהִתְנַדֵּ֖ב עָ֑ם בָּרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה: ג שִׁמְע֣וּ מְלָכִ֔ים הַֽאֲזִ֖ינוּ רֹֽזְנִ֑ים אָֽנֹכִ֗י לַֽיהֹוָה֙ אָֽנֹכִ֣י אָשִׁ֔ירָה אֲזַמֵּ֕ר לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ד יְהֹוָ֗ה בְּצֵֽאתְךָ֤ מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ בְּצַעְדְּךָ֙ מִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֱד֔וֹם אֶ֣רֶץ רָעָ֔שָׁה גַּם־שָׁמַ֖יִם נָטָ֑פוּ גַּם־עָבִ֖ים נָ֥טְפוּ מָֽיִם: ה הָרִ֥ים נָֽזְל֖וּ מִפְּנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה זֶ֣ה סִינַ֔י מִפְּנֵ֕י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ו בִּימֵ֞י שַׁמְגַּ֤ר בֶּן־עֲנָת֙ בִּימֵ֣י יָעֵ֔ל חָֽדְל֖וּ אֳרָח֑וֹת וְהֹלְכֵ֣י נְתִיב֔וֹת יֵלְכ֕וּ אֳרָח֖וֹת עֲקַלְקַלּֽוֹת: ז חָדְל֧וּ פְרָז֛וֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חָדֵ֑לּוּ עַ֤ד שַׁקַּ֨מְתִּי֙ דְּבוֹרָ֔ה שַׁקַּ֥מְתִּי אֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ח יִבְחַר֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים חֲדָשִׁ֔ים אָ֖ז לָחֶ֣ם שְׁעָרִ֑ים מָגֵ֤ן אִם־יֵֽרָאֶה֙ וָרֹ֔מַח בְּאַרְבָּעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ט לִבִּי֙ לְחֽוֹקְקֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַמִּֽתְנַדְּבִ֖ים בָּעָ֑ם בָּרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה: י רֹֽכְבֵי֩ אֲתֹנ֨וֹת צְחֹר֜וֹת יֹֽשְׁבֵ֧י עַל־מִדִּ֛ין וְהֹֽלְכֵ֥י עַל־דֶּ֖רֶךְ שִֽׂיחוּ: יא מִקּ֣וֹל מְחַֽצְצִ֗ים בֵּ֚ין מַשְׁאַבִּ֔ים שָׁ֤ם יְתַנּוּ֙ צִדְק֣וֹת יְהֹוָ֔ה צִדְקֹ֥ת פִּרְזֹנ֖וֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָ֛ז יָֽרְד֥וּ לַשְּׁעָרִ֖ים עַם־יְהֹוָֽה: יב עוּרִ֤י עוּרִי֙ דְּבוֹרָ֔ה ע֥וּרִי ע֖וּרִי דַּבְּרִי־שִׁ֑יר ק֥וּם בָּרָ֛ק וּֽשֲׁבֵ֥ה שֶׁבְיְךָ֖ בֶּן־אֲבִינֹֽעַם:Judges 5

Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying: When men let grow their hair in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless the Eternal. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, to the Eternal will I sing; I will sing praise to the Eternal, the God of Israel. Eternal, when You went forth out of Seir, when You did march out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the Eternal, even Sinai at the presence of the Eternal, the God of Israel. In the days of Shamgar the son of Anat, in the days of Jael, the highways ceased, and the travellers walked through byways. The rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased, until you did arise, Deborah, that you did arise a mother in Israel. They chose new gods; then was war in the gates; was a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the Eternal. Ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit on rich cloths, and ye that walk by the way, tell of it; Louder than the voice of archers, by the watering-troughs! there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the Eternal, even the righteous acts of God’s rulers in Israel. Then the people of the Eternal went down to the gates. Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, awake, utter a song; arise, Barak, and lead your captivity captive, you son of Abinoam”.

3.Jeptha’s Daughter Judges 11:34ff meets her victorious father with timbrels and dancing

לד וַיָּבֹ֨א יִפְתָּ֣ח הַמִּצְפָּה֘ אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְהִנֵּ֤ה בִתּוֹ֙ יֹצֵ֣את לִקְרָאת֔וֹ בְתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹל֑וֹת וְרַק֙ הִ֣יא יְחִידָ֔ה אֵֽין־ל֥וֹ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ בֵּ֖ן אוֹ־בַֽת: לה וַיְהִי֩ כִרְאוֹת֨וֹ אוֹתָ֜הּ וַיִקְרַ֣ע אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֲהָ֤הּ בִּתִּי֙ הַכְרֵ֣עַ הִכְרַעְתִּ֔נִי וְאַ֖תְּ הָיִ֣יתְ בְּעֹֽכְרָ֑י וְאָנֹכִ֗י פָּצִ֤יתִי־פִי֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְלֹ֥א אוּכַ֖ל לָשֽׁוּב: לו וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו אָבִי֙ פָּצִ֤יתָה אֶת־פִּ֨יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה עֲשֵׂ֣ה לִ֔י כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר יָצָ֣א מִפִּ֑יךָ אַחֲרֵ֡י אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂה֩ לְךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֧ה נְקָמ֛וֹת מֵאֹיְבֶ֖יךָ מִבְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן: לז וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לִּ֖י הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה הַרְפֵּ֨ה מִמֶּ֜נִּי שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וְאֵֽלְכָה֙ וְיָרַדְתִּ֣י עַל־הֶֽהָרִ֔ים וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ עַל־בְּתוּלַ֔י אָנֹכִ֖י וְרֵעֹיתָֽי [וְרֵעוֹתָֽי]: לח וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לֵ֔כִי וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח אוֹתָ֖הּ שְׁנֵ֣י חֳדָשִׁ֑ים וַתֵּ֤לֶךְ הִיא֙ וְרֵ֣עוֹתֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־בְּתוּלֶ֖יהָ עַל־הֶהָרִֽים: לט וַיְהִ֞י מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַתָּ֨שָׁב֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ וַיַּ֣עַשׂ לָ֔הּ אֶת־נִדְר֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָדָ֑ר וְהִיא֙ לֹא־יָדְעָ֣ה אִ֔ישׁ וַתְּהִי־חֹ֖ק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: מ מִיָּמִ֣ים ׀ יָמִ֗ימָה תֵּלַ֨כְנָה֙ בְּנ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְתַנּ֕וֹת לְבַת־יִפְתָּ֖ח הַגִּלְעָדִ֑י אַרְבַּ֥עַת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָֽה:

And Jephtha came to Mizpah to his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her that he rent his clothes, and said: ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth to the Eternal, and I cannot go back.’ And she said to him: ‘My father, you have opened your mouth to the Eternal; do to me according to that which has proceeded out of your mouth; forasmuch as the Eternal has taken vengeance for you of your enemies, even of the children of Ammon.’ And she said to her father: ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.’ And he said: ‘Go.’ And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man. And it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephtha the Gileadite four days in a year”

4.The women of the Cities of Israel sing their song of victory with dancing and timbrels   1 Samuel 18:6-7

     ו וַיְהִ֣י בְּבוֹאָ֗ם בְּשׁ֤וּב דָּוִד֙ מֵֽהַכּ֣וֹת אֶת־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּ֔י וַתֵּצֶ֨אנָה הַנָּשִׁ֜ים מִכָּל־עָרֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לָשִׁ֣ור [לָשִׁ֣יר] וְהַמְּחֹל֔וֹת לִקְרַ֖את שָׁא֣וּל הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ בְּתֻפִּ֥ים בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְשָׁלִשִֽׁים: ז וַתַּֽעֲנֶ֛ינָה הַנָּשִׁ֥ים הַֽמְשַֽׂחֲק֖וֹת וַתֹּאמַ֑רְן ָ הִכָּ֤ה שָׁאוּל֙ בַּֽאֲלָפָ֔ו [בַּֽאֲלָפָ֔יו] וְדָוִ֖ד בְּרִֽבְבֹתָֽיו:

“And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with three-stringed instruments. And the women sang one to another in their play, and said: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands”

5.Psalm 68 vv26-27 the women sing and dance and play timbrels

 כו קִדְּמ֣וּ שָׁ֭רִים אַחַ֣ר נֹגְנִ֑ים בְּ֖ת֥וֹךְ עֲלָמ֣וֹת תּוֹפֵפֽוֹת: כז בְּֽ֭מַקְהֵלוֹת בָּרְכ֣וּ אֱלֹהִ֑ים יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה מִמְּק֥וֹר יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

 “The singers go before, the minstrels follow after, in the midst of damsels playing upon timbrels. ‘Bless ye God in full assemblies, even the Eternal, ye that are from the fountain of Israel.’”

  1. Judith 15: 8-13

Then Joachim the high priest, and the ancients of the children of Israel who dwelled in Jerusalem, came to behold the good things that God had showed to Israel, and to see Judith, and to salute her. And when they came to her, they blessed her with one accord, and said to her, You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great rejoicing of our nation:  You have done all these things by your hand: you have done much good to Israel, and God is pleased therewith: blessed be you of the Almighty God for evermore. And all the people said, ‘So be it’.  And the people spoiled the camp the space of thirty days: and they gave to Judith Holofernes, his tent, and all his plate and beds and vessels, and all his stuff: and she took it and laid it on her mule; and made ready her carts, and laid them thereon.  Then all the women of Israel ran together to see her, and blessed her, and made a dance among them for her: and she took branches in her hand, and gave also to the women that were with her.  And they put a garland of olive upon her and her maid that was with her, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women: and all the men of Israel followed in their armour with garlands, and with songs in their mouths.

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